It’s the day after the big debate and media outlets like Politifact, Factcheck.org, AP, and NPR have their fact-checking (FC) machines churning at full speed since 9PM last evening. As a Skeptic who values solid evidence and empirical facts, I deeply appreciate FC but I strongly suspect that facts and examinations of truthfulness and accuracy doesn’t matter to the same degree for everyone when forming an opinion, coming to a conclusion, or assessing a candidate. Scientific research is bearing out my observations. Fact-Checking the fact checkers’ efforts is Brendan Nyhan. He’s done research to show how to NOT change people’s minds about their mistaken relationship between autism and vaccines via the irritating condition called the backfire effect. And he doesn’t think that FC efforts changes peoples’ minds once they are committed to an idea.
Human psychology isn’t going to change any time soon — it will always be hard to admit that we’re wrong! Moreover, the incentives for individuals to hold accurate beliefs in politics are very weak. That’s why I advocate holding elites accountable for spreading misinformation; we know that politicians are highly risk-averse and that the stakes are much higher for them than for voters. Even if fact-checking fails to change many minds, I believe it can still help change elite behavior on the margin.
Elites as used here refers to those people who are the influencers of a larger group, such as the top people in a political party.
I’ve written about false, true, and marginally true/false versions of stories for 5 years on Doubtful News, racking up a lot of experience in observing how the general public deals with questionable claims. As I see it, people fall into three categories about any issue:
- Those who want the objective truth. I don’t think are too many of these people because withholding judgment is difficult and we take a side based on what we think is true at the time or for some other personal reasons.
- People who don’t care about truth or facts. They won’t put much effort into thinking about it. They make decisions based on other values such as what some influential person thinks, what the Bible says, what seems trendy, etc. This is the opposite end of the spectrum from category 1 and there are just as many, if not more, in this category including most children.
- Those that state that truth is important but accept a version that supports their preferred position. Most people are here. They pick the facts they like best and ignore the rest. Efforts to change their position may sway them or can totally backfire, locking them even more tightly into position.
Adding to the value judgments (which make any policy or decision a murky, swirling grey blob instead of black or white), is the inherent problem of nuanced and ephemeral facts. A fact may be contingent on other subfacts, and it could be true in the past but not true now. In a complicated society full of complicated issues, “what are the true facts?” can be a complicated question too. One person’s facts can defy verification if he considers a “fact” what he wishes to be true. Listening to people like that is torture for me. You can find them in churches, cults and on infomercials.
The average human brain will resist or reject corrective information. If we hear a story and it sounds GREAT and we pass it on and we really really want it to be true, it’s a safe bet that we will ignore rebuttals or falsifications. Skeptic bunkum extraction efforts will be mocked. In some instances, the correcting information will reinforce the mistaken information! That’s the backfire effect and it’s crazy-annoying and very real to those of us addressing patently false claims. There are windows of opportunity for reasonable successful debunking of untrue tales, you have to get to it immediately and get it distributed very widely. The waves of social media sharing must be repelled, or else the truth gets lost in the deluge. Regardless, the corrected information will not reach the exposure of the original story anyway. See this work by Craig Silverman. It’s sort of depressing.
A huge effort is being made by many today fact-checking what is said by the Presidential candidates, but does it matter at this point if they tell the truth or not?
Not really. The same topics they bring up continually (with true, exaggerated or outright false statements) have become tasty sound bites that continue to be used. Such statements (“We will build a wall and make Mexico pay for it.”) are armored against FC because they serve a whole different purpose. A debate is more performance than testimony, where how well you talk and present yourself is more important than the content of what you actually say. Before giving much thought to the potential ramifications of FC, I would have said that facts and FC doesn’t matter. It’s a waste of time because most people fall into category 3 above; they are going to cherry pick the facts they want, have the untrue statements reinforced as true because of the backfire effect, and deny any uncomfortable facts. However, one of Nyhan’s studies and a recent personal exchange I had regarding a paranormal questionable claim has made me a FC cheerleader and inspired me to keep speaking out with facts against frauds.
In 2014, Nyhan participated in research that tested the effect of a fact-checking reminder on a population of state lawmakers. The published study “The Effect of Fact-Checking on Elites [PDF]” suggested that politicians’ awareness that were actively being fact-checked made them less likely to be untruthful over a time span. Based on results that likely undershot the effect size due to participation, the consequences of knowing that you are being watched serves as a subtle threat to behave better.
Media and journalists have been reluctant to appear biased or offend their key interview subjects by questioning the accuracy of their claims. They just report what the politician, scientist, doctor or celebrity says, no matter how woo-woo it seems. Skeptical advocates and media critics took the role of fact-checker. We had to dig into the story, check the claims put forward, and debunk as needed. The movement to fact-check politicians and news stories is growing. There are several outlets devoted to this and exposing fake stories and false claims remains a primary effort of skeptical activism. The growth of FC is almost certainly correlated to the Internet that has allowed for expanded and expedited information streams lacking fact-checking because of the prioritization of clicks over accuracy.
The FC movement directly overlaps with fundamental goals of skeptical activism – promote the empirical truth, providing the best information based on reliable and sound evidence. Nyhan wants to see an expansion of the FC movement. It’s possible that hammering about untruthfulness in the public stream WILL eventually influence some of those people who are selecting their facts. The hammering waves of skepticism may finally bowl them over.
It could be that as FC gets more common, the elites, to use Nyhan’s term, will become less sensitive to the threat of being fact-checked. But right now, having a reputation of being untruthful is almost universally damaging. Trump’s personality and reputation, reliant on his branding as a shrewd businessman, does not suffer much from this reputation as a liar even though truthfulness is a quality we desire in a President. But if you call someone a liar and have the facts to back that up, they have few options to retort. That’s what we have been seeing happening to Trump.
This past week I had my own adventure in fact checking, truth in reporting and ethical considerations when Kenny Biddle and I did some digging into a story about a demon house promoted by a man in Seattle, Washington. The history of his claims is quite long so you can google it if want to look into it; I can’t do it here. Keith Linder claimed he had strange goings-on in his house. He called in the Ghost Adventures TV show crew and then an investigation group called The Scientific Establishment of Parapsychology (SEP). Linder released a report from SEP recently on various websites in what clearly was an effort to show that his case was real and not a hoax, as SEP deemed some activity as unexplainable or paranormal. Linder has been an active promoter of his case for several years while rebuffing skeptical researchers. The SEP report was horrible – full of unreadable graphs, following poor methodology, and bloated with pseudoscientific babble. Kenny had the report run through a software program commonly used to detect plagiarism and discovered that about 38% of the text was verbatim from other, unattributed sources. I wrote to the lead author, Steve Mera, with the plagiarism charge. He said that the report was not final, it was just a draft, and that Linder should not have released it. The report is dramatically stamped “cleared for release” and contains no indication that it is a draft or that the unattributed portions would be fixed or cited.
Kenny and I caught them in a major misstep. The SEP informed Linder to pull the report from his shared site which he has. (But we still have it.) Will we get a revised report eventually? Who knows. It’s small potatoes, I know, but if someone is going to present documentation, I’m going to check it out. A significant portion of Americans believe that paranormal events really happen even though, like this case, the evidence is crap. Linder, SEP, and many mystery mongering groups and individuals are aware that knowledgeable, critical eyeballs will be trained on their extraordinary claims and we can quickly pick up on evidence that suggests misinformation or hoaxing.
So, it appears FC and skeptical activism works to scale back inaccurate “facts”, unethical and unprofessional actions, and maybe even squash hoaxes or frauds. If we didn’t bust the fakers, we’d probably be overrun by them. It’s worthwhile to call out the liars and fakers. It’s what we do. Someone has to.